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The art of death in superhero comics

Death is a fundamental part of superhero-comic DNA. Countless heroes have been pushed to a crime fighter’s life because of the death of a loved one, and the Grim Reaper continues to follow these figures after they’ve put on their masks and costumes. Yet while death is a major element of superhero comics, so is resurrection, and the list of heroes that have died and then somehow recovered is enormous. No matter what Marvel and DC’s publicity departments want people to believe, no fatality is permanent in superhero stories, but death can still be used as a valuable storytelling tool. 

In September of last year, Marvel announced Avengers Arena, a title that put the publisher’s teenage superheroes in an arena and forced them to fight for their lives à la The Hunger Games or Battle Royale. The announcement was met with much rancor from fans of series like Avengers Academy and Runaways, unhappy to see their favorite characters thrown into a concept that on the surface seems like just another young superhero slaughterfest. As a Runaways superfan myself, I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of Chase and Nico used as cannon fodder, but my fears were quickly assuaged upon reading Dennis Hopeless and Kev Walker’s emotionally rich, psychologically intense series. 

Spotlighting a different character in each issue, Hopeless’ story has done remarkable work making readers care about all the combatants in the arena, which includes a fair share of new characters. Flashbacks to what life was like for these teens before getting teleported into Arcade’s Murderworld inform their reactions to their new life-or-death circumstances, and that focus on character development makes the shock-and-awe plot developments hit much harder. Walker’s contribution can’t be underestimated here (along with guest artists Alessandro Vitti and Riccardo Burchielli), capturing the impact of the violence in brutal detail as well as the youth of these would-be murderers. Walker’s art doesn’t let the reader forget that these are teens fighting to survive, making it even more heart wrenching when they are forced to make decisions that would be incredibly difficult for an adult. Fear of death is the motivation for these heroes, and the major draw of this title is seeing the toll that fear takes on their psyches.

The reactions to Avengers Arena continue to be heated, but after the last few issues, it’s easy to imagine Hopeless cackling maniacally at his computer as he watches Tumblr and Twitter explode with each new twist in the story. (Spoilers ahead for Avengers Arena #10-#12.) Hatred for the title was at a high following the cliffhanger to #10, which showed a severely wounded Nico Minoru crawling through the snow toward her magic staff and casting a healing spell just before dying. The issue ended with Nico’s health bar at zero, and then Hopeless went to a completely different part of the arena for the next chapter, making readers wait to see if Nico’s fate was sealed. Death is a storytelling device, and in Nico’s case, Hopeless cuts away from the action just as death descended in order to build the tension for the story arc’s explosive finale. Nico’s life stays on the reader’s mind while the plot shifts to tell a lighter, but still emotionally complex story about how Avengers Academy characters Reptil and Hazmat are faring. When the focus returns to Nico, it’s revealed that not only did her spell work, but also the fact that she took so much damage makes the blood-powered Staff Of One even stronger, bringing her back to life with a new arsenal of devastating black magic. 

Nico’s resurrection is at the start of #12, but Hopeless drops the big bombshell at the end of the issue when Deathlocket stumbles upon a lab underneath Murderworld where the bodies of all the deceased combatants are being kept for an unknown purpose. The reveal opens storytelling possibilities that wouldn’t be possible without the deaths of these characters, and even if some of these dead heroes find their way back to the living, their initial sacrifices have helped make Avengers Arena a riveting superhero read each month. When used well, death can be the impetus for a great story, and the past year has seen fatalities reinvigorate X-Men, Spider-Man, and Batman titles. 

Marvel’s 2012 crossover Avengers Vs. X-Men ended with the death of Professor Charles Xavier at the hands of his prized pupil Scott Summers, an event that gave the X-Men titles a greater sense of direction than they’ve had in years. Charles Xavier was a character who had outlived his usefulness, and his demise gave Cyclops a new purpose and led to the original five X-Men being brought to the present. That second bit has proven one of the most successful risks of Marvel Now!, with writer Brian Michael Bendis turning All New X-Men into a book that introduces the contemporary X-world to a fresh set of eyes: those of the five gifted youngsters who founded it. It’s new-reader-friendly but still steeped in the history of these characters, and it wouldn’t have happened if Xavier was still alive. 

For major superheroes, death is just a detour unless it’s an alternate-reality story or something set in the far future away from mainstream continuity. Captain America and Batman both “died” in the past decade, but instead of actually being killed, they were sent back in time and forced to fight their way to the present. The writers waited a year or two between the deaths and the resurrections to make people think that a permanent change was happening, but Cap and Batman were back in action by the time their movies hit theaters. The mind of Peter Parker is dead and his body is under the control of Doctor Octopus in the comic books right now, but The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is only a year away. Peter will be back soon, but meanwhile, Dan Slott is taking advantage of the character’s death to explore a different side of the character’s potential. 

The first issue of The Superior Spider-Man revealed that Peter Parker’s consciousness had found a way to survive after his body was taken over by Otto Octavius, but #9 had the villain crushing the last vestige of Peter in a psychic battle. It seems like Peter is really dead at this point, but there is no shortage of ways to bring him back, whether it’s by super-science, time travel, or a Faustian deal with the devil. It’s understandable that fans of Peter Parker wouldn’t want to read a Spider-Man series without him as the lead, but it’s also a lot of fun to see how Doctor Octopus uses Peter’s brain and superhuman abilities to advance his vigilante mission in ways that were never attempted before. Peter will be back, but putting a different character in the spotlight for a while has invigorated Slott’s writing on the title, and each new issue has him expanding Spider-Man’s power in exciting ways. 

Death is an important tool for changing the status quo of superheroes, but sometimes death is actually used to put an ending to a character’s arc. Grant Morrison’s seven-year run on Batman comes to a close this month with Batman, Incorporated #13, and while it’s still possible that Damian Wayne will reappear by the end of the issue, his death in #9 was the perfect death knell for Morrison’s run. A story is incomplete without an ending, and Morrison concludes his epic story in operatic fashion, starting with Damian’s death. Morrison (along with Peter J. Tomasi on Batman And Robin) turned Batman’s bratty son into one of DC’s most complex and beloved characters, and then he killed Damian off because Batman is a character rooted in tragedy. 

Morrison hurt Bruce Wayne in a way the character hadn’t experienced since his parents died, and Morrison’s willingness to take Batman to painful extremes has turned Batman, Incorporated into one of the year’s most unpredictable superhero titles. DC’s New 52 wiped out characters like Wally West, Donna Troy, and Stephanie Brown in a single flash, so it’s not a surprise that The New 52 been surprisingly light on significant superhero deaths. Damian Wayne’s death was so effective because he was one of the few characters who carried his pre-New 52 history with him during the re-launch. Having a strong sense of who these characters are is the only way to give their deaths significance, and The New 52 erased a lot of valuable backstory.

(Spoilers for Justice League #22 ahead.) A superhero fatality is the catalyst for DC’s Justice League crossover “The Trinity War,” but Superman supposedly killing Doctor Light is all shock and no substance. Doctor Light was only recently introduced in the pages of Justice League Of America and barely given enough time to create a personality for himself before getting his head turned into ash, and it seems like Doctor Light is only included in the story because he’s a character that already has a horrible reputation because of Identity Crisis. That series never happened in The New 52 and Arthur Light is a benevolent family man, but that information comes forward in the form of hasty exposition rather than having the reader actually see Arthur’s situation firsthand. 

Mastering the art of the superhero death means convincing the reader that the character is actually dead. Starting an event by killing a character—one introduced for the sole purpose of starting said event with his death—doesn’t lead to a very dramatic story. And then there’s the cliffhanger, in which a mysterious figure says, “Thanks to me, everyone will actually believe that Superman’s killed Doctor Light.” Immediately casting doubt on Doctor Light’s fate makes Superman’s actions feel even more like a cheap PR stunt rather than a necessary narrative decision. These stories are fantastic but death is as real as it gets, and fully exploring the characters and finding their emotional core is the only way for a superhero death to have any meaning, even if it’s temporary.